Sunday, October 30, 2016

Diagramming Sentences, Stories, and Personal History

Whatever complex activities were involved with the onset of puberty, you knew it was there when it rode roughshod over you, its willing and sometimes unwilling recruit. When the subject of diagramming sentences was first introduced to you, you were more than likely an ordinary student, which meant you were more or less interested as opposed to never interested or always, excitingly interested. 

When the teacher announced that the class was about to investigate ways sentences could be mapped or diagrammed, the effect on you was as immediate and persistent as puberty. You were alert to opportunities, eager to experiment, filled with the impatience to get on with a concentrated probing of the mysteries inherent. 

It is too much a mannered trope to say you were acute enough to equate puberty with diagramming sentences, but it is not mere hyperbole to say you took both on with vigor and determination.

This is not meant to suggest you at any time wished to become a grammarian or what in later years you would equate with the process of copyediting, only to relate how the ability to understand the concept of how elements fit within a sentence, and in particular the ways of word order in English, Spanish, and German set your inner flame of interest at the same intensity as puberty did to that aspect of your coming of age.

When you moved beyond high school, there were occasional courses in what was then known as creative writing, the goal being to express yourself. Had there been a creative writing major when you were an undergraduate, there you'd have been rather than the English major you became.

At the time of your studies, being an English major meant a more or less chronological journey from Chaucer and his contemporaries to an omnibus focus called modern literature, by which was meant a line drawn in the sand after the passing of Thomas Hardy, whom you admired, and more or less running out of gas at the early years of the twentieth century.

Although you'd not expected to enjoy the courses and reading in Victorian literature, the dedicated uses of plot and personal entanglements by authors such as Trollope, Collins, and Dickens caused you to settle in a bit, reading into the poetry and political concerns of the men and women who lived and, indeed, struggled with the Victorian mindset.

All this is backstory to the growing awareness of how Victorian attitudes of morality, philosophy, and politics had an effect on the white, middle-class/working class bubble in which you lived and in which you wondered if you were doomed to remain imprisoned by.

Although you could not recognize it at the time, the years of the Victorian era were a gift to you because of the choices you were aware of when you set foot out of the university and into such worlds as television, motion pictures, and the multifarious worlds of the so-called slick magazines as opposed to the so-called pulps on which your tastes fell.

In brief, you became aware of Victorianism meaning an absurd amalgamation of white supremacy, imperialism, and class warfare, the tipping point being the way colonialism and imperialism denegrated all races but the while race and even then did a pretty convincing job of placing difficult obstacles against the notion of servant and working classes wishing to work their way up the social ladder.

In modern times, you've heard political leaders, heads of state, and scholars apologizing for past attitudes and behavior to entire groups they thought to be their intellectual and social inferiors. During your own lifetime, you'd heard close at hand stories of the first Americans, driven to dreadful fates, all in the name of our own American expansionism and so-called manifest destiny.

This brief ramble through your own history is the personification  of you as sentence diagramer and cartographer, illustrating the forces behind why you write, what you write about, and what your true thoughts are relative to the worlds through which you have had to make your way.

You stand in solidarity with groups for whom you undoubtedly bear some culturally infused animus, hopeful some of the skin of bigotry will shed as you pursue attempts to write, edit, and teach away the bogus cultural propaganda to which you and brothers and sisters have been subjected.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Aesop's Foibles

Scenes may properly be thought of as containers for the things people do, to, for, and against other people. You can also bring people together in a scene in which one or more characters has expectations that another character will do something--but doesn't. Thus scenes are arenas for action, anticipated action, judgment, surprise, and disappointment.

The more memorable scenes begin with some thematic set-up, which leads the reader to wonder which of the many possible emotional outcomes are being put into play. Thus beginning relates to setting expectation.

Two or more scenes in succession may add an unexpected note of curiosity or expectation for the reader, who does not, at the moment, see a clear, story-related path. Yet, the scenes are of themselves interesting because they tweak the reader's expectations that these evenhts are going to add up to something, an outcome or a payoff.

These theoretical two or more scenes in succession that may--indeed should--add curiosity or anticipation to the reader's position of witness should also be doing a job the reader often won't notice. This necessary task for all story helps separate the skilled writers from the wannabes. 

Scenes are the vehicles in which the writer presents the reader with relevant details, which means the details provide clues to the steps the characters will take and the conclusions they will draw in subsequent scenes. Thus has detail become something more than a mere noun or adjective, a hairbrush, say, or, better still, a hairbrush with traces of long, dark strands of hair.

In one kind of story, the discovery of such a hairbrush would cause an alarm of some sort to sound in a character who, herself, is red haired, discovering the long dark coils in her husband's hairbrush. In another kind of story, a detective, interviewing a suspect in the suspect's home, may ask the suspect to account for his time between say six p.m, and one a.m., last night. We readers already know a crime was committed during those hours, thanks to the use of the time frames set forth in previous details.

"I was home alone," the suspect says. But the detective notices the detail of two wine glasses on the kitchen work space, one of which has the telltale detail of a lipstick smear. Once again details support story by providing details of past events, present time events, and differing interpretations.  "What color was that car?" "Green." "Are you sure?" "Yes, I'm positive." A perfect set-up for, "No, it wasn't green at all, it was silver. I was as close to it as you were."

At one point during earlier times in your marriage, your wife sneaked into your closet, found your favorite pair of trousers, then took careful note of their dimensions, which she brought to your favorite clothing store for reference. The result was a gift you treasured for two reasons. The gift became your favorite pair of trousers and it caused a never settled difference of opinion between you and your late wife. Her: "Your gray trousers would go well with that shirt and jacket."

You: "At the moment, I don't have any gray trousers, but I did think to wear the dark green."

Her: "You do too have gray trousers; the pair I gave you for your birthday."

You: "Those are dark green."

Details are so much more than adjectives; they are the fulcrum for complex, nuanced relationships between individuals, and, of course, between individuals and animals or things.  

Scenes are important landscapes for characters, but try thinking of them more as arenas than landscapes. Try also thinking of them as places where the embedded details need to be as lively and related to outcome as the foibles of the characters.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Speaking in Tongues, Speaking in Codes, Speaking in Riddles


We all speak in code at some point during the day, whether to others or to that curious complexity that is the Self.  Code is a secret language, meant to include some we consider elect and exclude those we feel somehow ill at ease with. Coded messages give us the assurance we are special, perhaps even to the point of being less vulnerable than we fear.

Those of us who write speak in code all the time, certainly when we write dialogue involving two or more characters from differing social strata, and almost always when a literary agent or editor tells us our characters conversations are becoming too chatty.

Ah. Thank you for calling that to my attention.

I needed that exchange to get in vital information.

Fuck you.

You'll see; I pay off on it--later.


The expression "code talker" came into being during World War II, when twenty-nine Native Americans from the Navajo nation were recruited to use their own language as written and verbal ways of transmitting  vital, tactical military information the Japanese would have little or no opportunity to make use of. Because of the origins of the Navajo language, the Japanese had almost zero probability of interpreting data in written or spoken form.

There have been other forms of code talking over the years, your own awareness of the process brought to life when your parents used Yiddish, Hungarian, and Polish to exchange information in your presence such as determining your bed or nap times or one parent informing the other you were of a particularly stubborn or cranky frame of mind.

Thus you learned words in these languages you might not have learned, including slang and foreign language word for certain body parts. You and your sister quickly learned and exploited a useful language known as Pig Latin, meaning you could turn the tables on your parents and communicate readily without fear of being understood.

In later years, you had Spanish, some Italian, and a smattering of French down, but these didn't count because a legitimate language is accessible; code languages need an initiation. There was also the Aup Language, an elitist code if ever there was one, in which the speaker inserts the syllable "aup" before every vowel, thus on letters from N-Triangle, the secret club you'd joined, post cards and enveloped letters bore the admonition, Wraupite saupoon. "What language is that?" Your mother once asked.

Indeed, shortly after graduation from the university and your precipitous decision to follow the carnival, you became aware of that code language, its use and construction made the more easy thanks to your earlier ventures into Ig-pay, tin-lay, and the language of aup. Carney language had one inserting "Diaz" before each new syllable, thus carney language would be spoken as key-izarney liazanguizage.  Rolls right off the tongue all these years later. As well, ig-pay tin-lay reminds you with a chuckle of my pay and my aunt's pay.

With due respect and admiration to the Navajo code talkers and all those fluent in what you will lump together as kiddie languages, you also respect the notion of the euphemism, which in simplistic form is a way to take the sting off an actual unfortunate or fearsome circumstance. 

Death becomes The Grim Reaper personified, die becomes passed, passed away, passed over, and, let's hear it for the Navajos, walked on. You are supposedly enjoying your Golden Years, and as an agreeable take on the famed Peter Sellers "That's not my dog," you can and have allowed that you were just bitten by man's best friend.


These vagrant musings were begun with the notion that one of your dearest friends ever was a Brit, you've edited some thirty books from a native of Lyme Regis, West Dorset, and average fifty weekly coffee meetings a year with him over the last twenty-five years. Another dear friend, although herself born in South Africa, was the oldest daughter of two Brits; she made regular visits to Santa Barbara, and you visited her and her son while in London.

A quick scan of your memory reveals only one Brit character and another, an Aussie, pretending to be a Brit, and, now that you have that memory going, a Brit posing as an Aussie. You've read any number--at least three hundred--novels written by Brits, mostly populated with British characters, and you have seen at conservative estimate one hundred English feature films and two hundred English television dramas.

Questioning yourself, you're also aware from reading, watching, and observation (plus discussions with Auden and Isherwood), and your favorite university instructor, true enough, was born in Shanghai to missionary parents, but went to Merton College, Oxford, from which he received his advanced degree, giving him more than a little touch of the Brit.

You are aware, from an outsider point of view, of the vast social fabric of the Brits. You take special pleasure in watching the way two Brits, meeting for the first time, will go about confirming each the other's social ranking. This is true as well of America and you do not doubt the intricacies of American ranking.  Example: You asked another dear friend why, in checking out the school part of the discovery pedigree of a stranger, Yale graduates tend not to say Yale, rather New Haven.  "When were you at (as opposed to in) New Haven?"

Because, your friend explained, "The Harvards speak of their school days as having been at Harvard, and we have no wish to sound like them."

British actors come to this country and regularly knock off American accents. Notable examples Dominic West portraying a Baltimore cop in The Wire, and Hugh Lurie, first and foremost as the eponymous House, and in more recent days, Chance, both Yanks.

The effect of this is the challenge some aspect of you has given some other aspect: Write a plausible Brit character.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Neither Toothpaste nor Irony

Neither toothpaste nor irony can be contained when you squeeze the container a bit too hard. And so there you are, with too much toothpaste, too much irony, or too much of both. Get used to them. Live with them. Once you start following them, you see the opportunities for story you often miss when you follow more rational approaches to composition.

Discarding the excesses is neither story nor economical. Nothing is gained in the process. If anything, a bit of self-esteem might go looking for work. Story is, after all, excess, made to seem normal.

Here, we come to a major fork in the road, the place where normal distinguishes itself from ordinary. Story is, of course, the destabilization of the ordinary. Normal is how characters and their circumstances appear in consequence of their behavior.

Characters in stories are not normal in any ongoing sense of normality. In real time, we avoid individuals who seem too normal. In story, we are drawn to men, women, and young persons we come to suspect of having obstructionist or anarchist motives.

When you stop to consider the irresistible opening lines of stories and novels you've read and the importance of that irresistible effect you place on your own opening lines, you can't help visualizing toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube. There's one exception: The toothpaste isn't toothpaste; it's irony.

However much this may seem a self-admonishment to moderation, it is no such thing. You've grown beyond the need for moderation, both in age and temperament. Any gravitas you may have achieved has been attained because what seemed like moderation wasn't moderation at all; it was the squeezing forth of the last bolus of irony available.

The fulcrum in the balance between irony and story is a single word. Combined with that squeezed-out opening sentence is the state of awareness its presence has produced. Unthinkable.
Anything less than unthinkable, say rational, isn't story; rather it is cultural multiplication tables, those remarkable, secular imperatives we are all herded into memorizing. 

Two times two is indeed four, but the early bird does not always catch the worm. Tomorrow may well be another day, but unless we take it in hand, it is going to be remarkably like today, particularly if we have some problems with the outcomes or lack thereof we've experienced today.

Story has to be squeezed out of the tube. Story has to reek from irony or display too much toothpaste. "When you said X, I thought you meant Y." That's a proper beginning for a story. "When you said we were partners in this venture, I thought--ha ha, I thought you meant we were equal partners. But here I see you meant you were the senior partner and I was the junior."

"What are you doing with all that toothpaste?" To which the reader expects a subversive, secretive, evasive, or confrontational reply.  "What toothpaste?"

The matter of concern here is not if the unthinkable will come to pass but how soon, the opening line, for instance.



Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Suspicious Characters, Calling out from the Shadows

By the time you'd reached the point of recognizing how important the first sentence of a story or longer work was to you as a writer, the matter of plotting began to fade into the distance. This is not to say plotting was in any significant way present.  You worried about it in spite of all the writing you did failing in large measure to turn up many signs of it.

The immediate consequences of intriguing openings changed your reading preferences, the way your narrative voice sounded, and brought to you a sense that you would be read and listened to for at lease a paragraph.

One friend compared your stories sounding like a train, coming out of a long tunnel. Although you weren't quite sure what this meant, you were impressed, particularly since this same friend also said your opening sentences put her in mind of Lee K. Abbott. You didn't know what that meant, either, but with some promptness, you strove to find out.

Well beyond the notion of "the sooner the better," there are certain dangers in being compared favorably to a writer for whom you have vast admiration and respect. Danger number one is doing things consciously to below the radar to incorporate aspects of that individual into your work.

It is nothing, or at least a negligible thing to be compared to a writer you have no use for, however successful that writer is. You pass off the comparison as having no consequence, steadfast in your belief that if you were as popular as someone whose work you did not respect, say Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, you would not consider the comparison to have been based on an understanding of your work. Of course no one has compared you to Tom Clancy or Dan Brown, leaving the matter academic and moot.

For that matter, no one has compared you with Mark Twain, although that did not deter you from trying to sound like him. Nor, even when you thought you'd been able to pull down his voice and style in much the same way Kevin Spacey is so readily able to imitate other actors, no one either told you you captured Twain or that you ought to stop trying to sound like Twain and sound more like yourself.

Considering your narrative voice, your goal is to write the way you speak and speak the way you write, but from all appearances, you don't sound like anyone because no one has spoken of admiration for your narrative voice--no one, that is, except for the friend who said your opening sentences put her in mind of the short fiction of Lee K. Abbott.

"She was Betty Porter," Abbott wrote in "Ninety Nights on Mercury,"a being as much of magic as of muscle, and I who I ever am--Heath 'Pokey' Howell (Junior) banker, Luna County commissioner and, as events will prove, the dimmest of sinners, male type."

He also wrote: "Ten months after she left (he told the boys(, he got the letter, 'I'm calling myself Ida now.'"

You approach his collections of short stories the way you'd approach a fresh bottle of Wild Turkey and a pitcher of ice water, with a respectful caution, mindful of how quickly respect can turn to overconfidence. His characters call out to you from the shadows, from rooms where the lights are off, or sometimes from murky parking lots, asking if you happened to have one of those flashlight aps on your cellphone.

Your own characters are suspicious enough, thanks to the things they want or wish to avoid in the first sentences of your stories. Sometimes they even tell you to go fuck yourself, then draw you aside to apologize, telling you not to take the matter too personally, because they tell everyone on occasion to go fuck themselves.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

When Story Is Like a Navajo Rug

What a pleasure it was, hearing a book designer tell you she was going to use vignettes instead of asterisks to separate bodies of text in an ornate and mannered series of essays, written by an old friend, most of which had originally appeared in the Playboy that was, as opposed to the Playboy that is, of more recent years.

You were delighted to hear the term vignette having a more visual use than the seemingly dismissive literary meaning that had come from more than one of your early writing instructors. 

"This is not a story," one of them said, "this is a vignette." Yet another said, "This material is like those short Talk of the Town pieces in The New Yorker.  Good evocation of characters, but no plot. Maybe that's your calling. Go to New York, get on with The New Yorker, write vignettes."

The rub there was that some of your favorite writers, such as John O'Hara, were appearing regularly in The New Yorker, but not in Talk of the Town. They were short story writers, and although there seemed to be lively interaction between their characters, and a resident appearance of dramatic irony, they did not seem to know any more about plots than you did. Their stories had outcomes rather than resolutions.

When you spoke of such things to your instructors, they were back on the subject of vignettes again, whereupon you were reduced to thinking one of the easiest thoughts possible for someone of your years, a two-word thought, the last word of which was the neutral but all-inclusive "it." Fuck it; you'd be a vignettist.

Over the years, you've gone through many phases in your attempts to help you see what you were getting yourself into when you stumbled into the rabbit hole of storytelling. Like Alice, who represents for you a splendid metaphor of life within the rabbit hole, you are fascinated and bewildered by the characters you encounter, even at one point going so far as to base your characters on what you would call Dodgsonesque archetypes in tribute to Alice's creator.

The rabbit hole is the perfect portal to the world of story. Unlike others who walk with chins tilted skyward, you often walk with head cast downward or at some indeterminate point between ground- and waist-level, looking for clues, the nooks and crevices where entry may involve a darkened passageway for a time, but then opens into an alternate universe with its own denizens, its own rules of such physical behavior as gravity, its cultural rules of personal behavior such as gravitas or its absolute lack.

Vignettes, as you understand them, are focused examinations of an incident or a detail. They require no explanation or resolution, yet they are dramatic and illustrative, reminding you of the quilts you have owned, still own, and have seen on display.
As you understand Navajo rugs, these, even the obviously more patterned ones, such as the small one on your living room floor, are replications of sand paintings which, as you understand these, are ceremonial drawings, set forth to cure a particular lack of order and Grace.

These rugs have some imperfection or anomaly deliberately woven into them, in keeping with the notion that the sand painting and its accompanying ceremony are temporary, not meant to endure, recreated only when there is some cosmic disarray that wants repair.

Can it be that you have, after all this time, stumbled on the meaning of story, which is a form of ceremony in which vignettes are linked to illustrate some cosmic disorder and a possible way to approach the disorder?


Monday, October 24, 2016

Are You in Trouble If You Like Your Characters?

At one time in the not too distant past of the novel, one of the more significant influences on it was the magazine, which appeared on a monthly or quarterly basis. 

Let's objectify that statement by bringing Charles Dickens into it, allowing the observation that the novel began to draw epic readerships around 1840, by which time Dickens had published his fourth novel, Barnaby Rudge, and was beginning to get the hang of the longform narrative.

Thackeray was finding the form for his own novels with great thanks to magazines at about the same time as Dickens; at least two other major writers of the time, Trollope and Collins, came along shortly after. 

By 1850, the novel had adjusted its format to the publishing schedules of magazines, meaning readers of books could expect cliffhanger endings of installments because, indeed, readers of magazines stood in line for the newest installments of Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, and Collins the way music fans of today camp out in anticipation of concerts.

Not until you took courses in Victorian literature did you understand the dynamic of the format, but no matter, really; you'd read enough to absorb the need for continuous movement in the longform narrative, and thanks to the accident of your own birth into a resurgence of magazine fiction, you could discuss if not always demonstrate the successful shape of the short story and how such concepts as the sub-plot drove the longer narrative form.

All about you now is another resurgence, the online literary journal, where story behaves like a puppy, struggling to escape being fenced into the yard, ever alert for opportunities to be memorable. By no means the least of one of these escapes is the notion of likable characters, men, women, and youngsters who, as the late periodical, The Saturday Evening Post, told its writers, looked for individuals such as the Tugboat Annie character--someone who might be unusual but nevertheless someone you'd not think twice about inviting into your home.

Times surely have their effects on story. At the moment, there is nothing like The Saturday Evening Post available, and such journals as there are often feature characters who'd not likely be invited to anyone's home. Rather, they'd be found in centers for homeless or, as you've done with at least two of your own characters, living in their cars.

You've been at some pains in these warm-up-exercise notes and essays to argue for the need to find different ways of ending the short story and the novel, veering as far as possible from such tropes as "and then they all lived happily ever after."

Beginnings have been important learning occasions for you because you grew up in an atmosphere where the plot-driven story held sway and you recognized the significant weakness in your own work of being able to construct a plot.

You were driven by your own reading of the works from well before your time to those right in the middle of it as plot-driven, leaving you not only the outlier personality who wished to write but as well the outlier who wished to write other than plot-driven narrative. 

This meant the need for an opening sentence, paragraph, or concept to intrigue the potential reader away from the conventional plot.